Part I: Gush.

Sometimes all it takes for an artist is a show – it arrives at the perfect moment and can serve as a fuel for future creative reflection extending well beyond the original encounter.  Such has been my experience peering into the world of Yayoi Kusama.*  The inspiration derived from seeing the diverse body of work (and media) of an artist insistent on asserting an authentic, personal vision (one which not so paradoxically turns out to be deeply resonant for the many), is unparalleled.   I was overwhelmed by this artist’s impressive body of work, her years of dogged pursuit, dedication, and perseverance, not to mention her non-binary, multifaceted defiance of any outside attempt to categorize or pigeon-hole her work and life.  There was something very pointed and powerful for me in this individual’s career and life, in spite of her struggles along the way.  And she continues to create in the face of it all, including, surely, an acute awareness of her own mortality as she transitions into her 10th decade. 

I feel certain art-making is Yayoi Kusama’s way of transmuting her suffering (chaos, confusion, pain, alienation, etc.).  This must be, in part, why her work and life are so interesting to inhabitants of the chaotic early 21st century.  It really speaks to the entire spectrum of the human condition across time and place but which finds its most unrestrained expression in the digital era:  self-indulgence, self-transcendence, hopes, fears, failure, success, struggle, resistance, outrage, protest, surrender, highs, lows, light, dark, expansion,  contraction, contradiction, loud, quiet, hard, soft, contemplative, monkish, introspective, riding the continuum of an life through successive waves of profound confusion and self-doubt as well as profound insight and self-acceptance.

 I was and still am enveloped.

Part II.  Layers, Siftings and Further Musings in a Transitional Era.

Yayoi Kusama’s work will continue to stimulate my thinking in a variety of ways for months to come, but as I am now constantly grappling with art/craft/making in an era of increasing resource limits and crisis-level climate alterations, I also wanted to look at her work through a more narrow lens.  Regardless of what we all personally “believe”/accept about climate change, we are approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity (i.e., its capacity to carry humans in our current configuration) on many resource fronts.  This has implications for every aspect of human life, but in the context of creative endeavor generates many deep and serious questions, not the least of which are:  Is it possible to, and how can we, develop a sensibility in our making that can integrate and nurture humanity, other species, as well as the environment we share? And what does an “aesthetic of sustainability” look like and, importantly, can that become as universally embraced as the fossil-fuel driven aesthetic seems to be today?   One might ask if these questions and their answers even matter at all, but I think the do.  It is my belief that their answers can contribute to how successfully we collectively respond to our many current and future challenges.

We don’t need to look too far into the past to find a time when sustainable making was the only kind of making.  Today many draw attention to, for example, wabi-sabi and related aesthetic concerns as antithetical rescue remedies for the excesses of the industrially created artifact: something rustic, direct, uncomplicated, salvaged, organic, entropy-embracing.  As I reflect on Kusama-world, I am struck by how much our expectations and aesthetic values are outgrowths of the instant-gratification, fossil-fuel -driven world we all inhabit, and how her work is quite possibly this waning era’s most vivid and exuberant expression.

From a materials standpoint alone, Kusama’s work is saturated with acrylic paint, a wide range of plastics and other petroleum-derived components, as well as vast arrays of electric light. These are the materials for the vast majority of 20th and early 21st century artists/designers/makers.   These are also peak fossil-fuel-consumption-era materials, by-products of processes contributing to habitat-degrading greenhouse gas emissions.  Include the energy and resources embedded in manufacturing these materials and components, the embedded and operational energy of a large scale exhibition of this type and its mass-manufactured “swag” (which, as a child of this space/time I will admit to being attracted), and the energy embedded in the cloud-dependent mass social-media feeds (to which I am also a steady contributor and participant), and we have a completely unsustainable model …unless of course we can very quickly (like, yesterday) develop an energy source dense enough to match the miracle of fossil-fueled energy, one that doesn’t destroy the habitability of our planet!

It is a poignant moment.  I am clearer than ever as an artist/designer/maker as to my own purpose and vision and how to manifest it; I am also increasingly aware that I need to find new (or return to earlier) ways of creating to reduce my ecological footprint.  Rhetorical question:  Are the imperative to create and the imperative to reduce my footprint mutually exclusive?

We live in an era of dissonance at many levels of our lives.  We attempt to hold many truths which are ultimately mutually exclusive.  So it is for fossil fuels: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. This fact is one source of a host of misunderstandings and conflicts, of mis- and mal- investment, of alienation from wealth and power on one end of the spectrum and the dense consolidation of wealth and power on the other.  In an era of transition, we will be looking for ways to hold on to whatever we can of the by-products of this energy system, even if to do so endangers our core support system.  We hope something will come along to save us before we are forced to make hard choices.  This dissonance can be paralyzing, and it shows no signs of abating as new generations come of age.  It suggests a repeating “error” code firing in our brains coupled with an increasingly dysfunctional “reset” switch.

And so it is, at the likely twilight of fossil-fuel driven exuberance, that Yayoi Kusama’s work is a beautiful, joyous, riotous, inspiring symbol of life. Her work and being are also about persistence and resilience.  I think we flock to its material abundance and ebullience for comfort and affirmation in an uncertain age.  I love the show for this but I am also sobered by it because it reminds me of the hard work ahead.  We artists and makers especially must work to realize a new, unified, resilient vision of person and planet and stay the course in the same way that Kusama has continued to work her entire life to realize her unique vision – it’s demanding, arduous and on-going.  That is the nature of making/creating, of life and work….And it’s all-hands-on-deck now.  K.C.

Images: My own, taken during the show (except from the large composite above: a friend captured the frequently elusive shot from the Dots Obsession viewer): some composites of highlights; my digital montage of Kusama’s celluloid montage, and mash-up selfies from The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away and Phalli’s Field.

*Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors! is showing now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta – I received a gift invitation to the show or I would not have made it at all as tickets are, alas, sold out. However, there are numerous windows into this show and her work on YouTube and elsewhere on the fabulous Internet.  Check it out!

It is in my nature to seek metaphysical roots and metaphorical tendrils in much of what transpires/crosses my path in life.  Through that process I unearth grounded, practical symbols and solutions to aid in resolution/transmutation/evolution.  Life is change – sometimes subtle and easily integrated; sometimes profound and world-rocking.  I am living change of the latter sort: I was recently shaken by a health setback, one which has necessitated quick, unequivocal, and fundamental shifts in personal priorities, beliefs, values.  Adversity has a way of shaking one’s foundations and, at minimum, calls into question one’s habitual responses to life’s little challenges, especially those in the creative realm – which is just about everything for me.

Coincident with my diagnosis, a very old, large oak tree fell in my yard.  This long-lived tree had been a fixture in my life for over 20 years.  It had a seemingly solid presence, and I was attached to it.  Although it continued to grow (and was over 100’ tall), the tree lacked vital root structure to support its crown; eventually it fell over under its own weight (with a bit of aid from weeks of ground-saturating rainfall).  It was inevitable but I didn’t see it coming.  Just like this little health set-back – didn’t see that coming either.   But I am not one for dwelling or wringing my hands over statistical probabilities/possibilities.  Don’t we all just cope with whatever arises when it arises anyway?

But back to trees: for me, they have always been powerful symbols of strength, endurance, aspiration, inspiration, and mastery in the moment.  They come as they are, and if they are lucky, grow up in and around others like them.  In being held up by each other at their roots, they are a bit more resilient to some external pressures and shocks.  (Not unlike us humans, as Rumi observed: “Every forest branch moves differently in the breeze, but as they sway they connect at the roots.”*) The glorious oak in my front yard lived a long, lush life but it didn’t have the good fortune of community.  However, in falling it did create light for the understory.  And as my friend Lori pointed out, it has created symbolic illumination for my own life situation.  Areas of my life which have heretofore been covered in shadow can be potentially cleansed by that light.  This is the kind of light I will need as I journey through recovery.  A bitter-sweet recognition.

I did briefly go through a period of fear that I would not be able (or have the desire) to create again – everything was so turned on its head.  However, a good deal of light has been cast upon all aspects of my making/creating as well, leading me to bring a more balanced practice on-line – something more receptive, in which my expansive, project-orientation, end-product fixation yields some ground to a quiet, plodding, more directly  process-oriented, work.  There is always tension between these two dynamics, the resolution of which makes way for completion.  Moving effortlessly between being (receptive, mindful, process-oriented making), and doing (action-oriented, planning, product-focused making) can yield the most interesting results (whether they are marketable or not).  The joy is in the flow and embrace of both, as they come.

*from Birdsong, Rumi (fifty-three short poems translated by Coleman Barks); Maypop Press, Athens, Georgia. 1993:

Spring overall.  But inside us
there is another unity.

Behind each eye yere,
one glowing weather.

Every forest branch moves differently
in the breeze, but as they sway
they connect at the roots.

This is the first installment in a new series featuring fellow studio craft artists who, through their studio practice, are engaging life in the early 21st century in a variety of inspiring ways.  This series is also borne of a desire to illuminate craft as a sublime and appropriate undertaking  in a time of social, political and economic complexity.  At its core though, this series is about the life and work of grounded artists sharing a passion for craft in all its nuanced glory.

I’d like to open this series with a little sketch of my long-time friend, Ana Vizurraga.  Ana is among the first of my friends to inspire me to pursue my own lines of craft work and inquiry.  She is a quiet but passionate ceramic artist, a committed educator, and “creative expeditionary” (to paraphrase Bob Dylan).   You probably won’t find much about her on the web – AV doesn’t have a “web presence,” per se.  That does not prevent her from being highly regarded by her creative colleagues and collectors, and much-loved by her students, who range in age from c. 5 to 65+.  She approaches her work with open heart and mind and I have always admired her deep spiritual connection to the medium, married with a practical and direct engagement with its essential qualities.  Symbols of earth, nature, and fecundity are fundamental to Ana’s work.  References to nature’s diversity abound, each piece representing a soulful reverence for all of life, often peppered with joy-affirming humor or ironic detail.   She dedicates most of her efforts to “non-functional” work, although her functional work, to the extent she makes any, often possesses similar qualities (I should note that in this instance I am defining functional as e.g., something you can serve food or beverages on/in, etc.).  In short, AV is a high-level artisan working in a very traditional craft medium.  I consider her first a fine-craft artist.  She finds her place along the continuum occupied by myriad artists of radically diverse perspectives who also work in broad range of traditional craft media.

I feel Ana’s work finds its source in a sort of elemental nature-mysticism.  Indeed this is what attracts me most to it.  We drink from the same well.  With clay, though, there is a direct, primordial suchness which is unmatched by other craft media (although perhaps traditional wet-felting runs a close second).  It is earth, and a little water.  One shapes this material with one’s hands.  It can be shaped into a dwelling, vessel or ritual implement, with few additional inputs.  It is transformed by air, heat, fire.  How much more elemental can it get than that?  Even though my primary media don’t “dance with fire” (in the literal sense anyway), I am particularly interested in fire as a transformative element in craft.  As long as I have known Ana I have usually only ever seen the hand-building process or her finished work.  The firing process is largely concealed in most kiln technologies.  Not so with raku.  Late last year, the stars aligned and I was invited to observe and “assist” in a raku firing.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see this process first-hand, and honored to have this creative flame burning so brightly in my life!

K.C.
Atlanta, GA

 

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta recently hosted a collection of works by the Dutch designer, Iris Van Herpen (“IVH”) (Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion).  The show was diverse and complex and I am grateful I was able to make it to the museum before it closed earlier this month.  I was immediately inspired to write about it.  Interestingly, the process of writing opened up a whole new way of looking at my own work.  Before I returned to my modest exertions in the studio though, I recorded these thoughts and observations about the exhibition.

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Point of beginning:  I am rapidly drawn in by the unconventional, diverse and harmonious use of materials and form.  The pieces, all presented on the female figure, are vibrant, innovative, and impeccably crafted.*  The human form as an armature sets the sculptural limits of each piece, but within their respective envelopes, there is room to explore a variety of 3-dimensional ideas.  With chain, leather, polymers, film and other materials, through hand, laser, and 3-d print technologies, a coherent vision emerges.  This work exemplifies the holistic nature of design: a fusion of artistic sensibility, utility, and high craftsmanship.  My designer-mind turns at fever pitch to process all of the surface nuances and architectural splendor of the pieces.  At times, I feel I am practically hyperventilating from excitement.  A fresh encounter like this is potentially life-altering.  I am having an IVH “moment”, and I recognize this kind of experience as one of the hallmarks of my growth as an artist/designer/maker – the very best of creative cross-fertilization.

There are conceptual underpinnings to Iris Van Herpen’s work, to be sure. Technology is a strong driver but at its core is the notion of chaos.  This one idea, chaos, has so thoroughly captured my imagination that I am sure I will never look at anything the same again.  This is not the “chaos” of common parlance (as in disorder or break-down), or the formless, primordial reality posited by the ancient Greeks; but rather, the mathematical concept relating to non-linear systems dynamics.**  While I certainly have an incomplete understanding of the concept (and intend to apply myself further to the task of improving that understanding), I begin to appreciate this notion of chaos as a core dictate of process embodied in the exhibited works.  Via bundled and recursive layers, each piece is a composite of complex inputs.  Each suggests a semi-permeable system, one of feedback loops, altering vectors, potentialities, of scaled iterations, re-curving, reorganizing, and unfolding to infinity…except that they are all neatly arrested in space and time as discrete finished works.  There is a sense that this designer/artist/visionary has, in the completion of each piece, dialogued with chaos and deepened the scope of her dance with it.  One aspires to the level of individual and collaborative creative freedom, technical prowess, and innovation on display at this extraordinary exhibition.

There are a lot of other ideas that might be explored in connection with this exhibition, and I ran the gamut as I refined this post:  fashion and sustainability, the promises and limits of technology in the face of environmental degradation, holistic creative practice, to name a few….but these topics are for other posts.  For now, I am content to rest in the strange, paradoxical comfort represented by chaos.  Maybe that is the seduction of the exhibition and of Iris Van Herpen’s work – the hope, light, and magic in these pieces are reminders that we are each manifestations of pure, unfolding process, modified at points in space and time by myriad influences, each exerting forces with varying degrees of potential or predictable outcome.  We are indeed, living, breathing chaos, emergent processes of vectors known and unknown.  We might as well relax and enjoy the ride!

Footnotes:
*Throughout this article, I make a distinction between the sculptural, exploratory pieces and the more “accessible/market-friendly” couture (as seen, e.g., in the runway footage looped in conjunction with the exhibition).

** Apparently the term “chaos” belies the true nature of the dynamical systems it signifies although it continues to be used.  See James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking Press, 1987.

K.C. May, 2016

February already!  It’s always a month that seems to slip away before it has barely begun!  Here is a recap of the past month’s activities and musings:

My readers are hopefully now familiar with my “light” artisan wearable collection, petal-una (www.petalunacollection.com).  I have been working on these seasonal collections since 2012 and the upcoming Spring/Summer 2016 group builds on this foundation.  My desire throughout the design/build process is always to further my understanding of cloth, form, fit and finish as well as to successfully present my completed work at market.  Until now, I have generally approached the collection from the textile, rather than the garment, per se.  But things are shifting.  For a number of reasons, my textile/fiber artist-self is beginning to catch up with my landscape-designer-self.

As my creative selves become more fully integrated, the petal-una collections become more integrated, conscious acts of art and design.  That means I am taking into account cloth, surface and garment while also holding a variety of production variables in mind like time and cost, work-flow, utility use, marketing (including, but not limited, to social media activities), and a host of other allied considerations.  All of these undertakings figure into each piece created in the studio.  And, since I am still very much a solo operation for the time being (and there is only so much this body/mind can make manifest in a given calendar year), it is vital that I work as efficiently as possible from concept/design to development, production and completion, without losing sight of my mental and physical well-being.  This is particularly important since I still want to make room for art-making!  If you would like to see more day-to-day snapshots, please follow me on Instagram! (www.instagram.com/kathycoltartisan).

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The fact that I am finding the time and energy I require to undertake all of my creative work is in no small part attributable to coach/consultant/project manager-extraordinaire, Mary Quinn Templeton (www.maryquinntempleton.com / mqpmatl@gmail.com).  Mary Quinn and I met as fellow fiber/textile artists.  At that time, I was at a turning point in my work, not sure what I wanted or where I wanted to go.  Since we started working together, the path has begun to clear and my foot-steps are more deliberate.  (If this sounds like a testimonial…it is!!)  Obviously we are all responsible for making our own “it” happen, but we also don’t live in a vacuum – fresh insight can be liberating – I highly recommend it!  

In the process of getting my work back on track, other beautiful gifts have been bestowed:

A Rekindling of Deep Joy. Somewhere along the way, and for a variety of reasons, I started to lose touch with the sheer joy of making.  I am now remembering and reconnecting with the reasons why I choose to do what I do in all of its multi-disciplinary, multi-hat-wearing complexity and glory.  Bring it on!

Befriending and Embracing Fear. Letting go of judgment and anxiety about myself and my work, the future (and anything else falling into the “monkey-mind” category) is huge (and I don’t think I am alone here!).  Radical acceptance of the what, where, when and how of it all, the now of it all, and just getting on with it all, has opened up new and previously unimaginable pathways.  After all of these years, I can finally get busy living and doing the Work, and be at peace with that!

Restoring the mental/emotional power grid: Taking responsibility for how I react to all phenomena and circumstances in my life is an on-going process, taken one experience at a time.  It’s not always easy, but cultivating equanimity makes for a clearer mind and greater capacity in one’s creative and life work.  Why not make more room for that, right?

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I am constantly reminded that being a working artist is not for the faint-hearted.  Luckily I was blissfully ignorant of the pitfalls or I would not have taken the first step.  Well into the journey now, I realize I do it because I must; however, it takes a lot of heart, soul, metaphoric blood, and a lot of sweat, persistence and constant insistence on a daily basis.  The day-to-day experience moves back and forth along the continuum: sometimes the process is uneffing-believable in its rich, diverse upwellings; sometimes it is incredibly physically exhausting and/or highly anxiety-provoking to an intensity which weakens creative flow and output.  Somewhere in the middle is the Balance, and in that space is the “zone”.  After all of these years of designing and making, I recognize a cultivated ability to access the “zone” with greater ease, and finally feel capable of efficiently managing my time, energy and finances to manifest my creative/life vision.  Next level?  Yes, please!

 

*footnote: I also think that I have been resisting the idea of myself as a “fashion” designer.  However, I am a designer and I certainly work in the fashion idiom from time to time, so maybe it’s time for me to embrace my inner-fashionista more fully!